Saben Lee

Pistons Mailbag: November 10, 2021

Saben Lee, Cade Cunningham, Killian Hayes and the decision to start all four recent No. 1 draft picks are among the items up for discussion in this week’s edition of Pistons Mailbag.

Michael (State College, Pa.): Do you think the shooting issues this year might be related to the lack of passes out of the post from guys like Mason Plumlee. I suppose one reason for trading Plumlee was to open up the lane, but our guards still need to get better at filling the lane and finding open shooters. Much of our roster would excel in transition if we could get the ball down the court faster. I am thinking that one of the best players for this is Saben Lee and I would really hope for a game where he gets 25 minutes to show us if he is the guy who can push the pace. Would like to hear your thoughts on these points.

Langlois: It’s a thought, but shooting remains down across the league by a significant margin from last season, so I think the odds that the absence of Mason Plumlee’s post passing is at the root of the Pistons woes are low. Besides, Plumlee’s minutes have essentially been taken by Kelly Olynyk, whose assist percentage this season (20.6 percent) is essentially the same as Plumlee’s last season (21.0). That matches the eye test. Olynyk is a good passer. If I had to guess at what’s driving the shooting numbers down leaguewide, I’d say the new basketball is the likeliest cause for the majority of it. I’m sure some of it has to do with the adjustment the game always makes. The trend of increased and improved 3-point shooting had gone on for a long while, so a correction from defenses was likely due to come. If only the Pistons were experiencing a shooting slump this season, that would be one thing. But when it’s an entire NBA issue, the new basketball and defenses coming up with a counter seem more likely explanations. As for playing faster, the integration of Cade Cunningham stands to make the Pistons a better transition team. His command and vision should yield a handful of improved scoring chances every game. As for Lee, keep reading.

Langlois: I don’t think the organizational plan for Saben Lee is going to be altered by one G League outing, no matter how impressive – and 42 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and four steals and 2 of 6 3-point shooting (the fact he took six, a quarter of his shots, is the notable thing there) with one turnover in 35 minutes in a 23-point win for the Motor City Cruise is very impressive. Lee will get more G League playing time before he forces the issue, but it’s not like he’s a guy who has to sell himself to the front office or coaching staff. Troy Weaver drafted him and Dwane Casey offered genuine and enthusiastic praise for Lee consistently last season for his work ethic, makeup and leadership qualities in addition to the athleticism and potential he exhibits. It’s tough to develop as many young players as the Pistons have put in the pipeline over the past 12 months – at this time last year, not one player currently on the Pistons was a member of the organization – so Lee has to wait on the opportunity the first-round picks from the past two drafts have been afforded. The Pistons signed him to a three-year contract coming off of his rookie season, spent on a two-way deal, so they’re committed to him for the long haul. The clock isn’t close to ticking on Lee. If he strings together solid games and weeks in the G League and is ready when called upon as injury or other conditions crack the door for him with the Pistons, he’ll eventually force his way into the rotation.

@_yahnik_/IG: Is Hamidou Diallo no longer in the team’s plans moving forward?

Langlois: They signed him to a two-year deal only a few months ago when he was a restricted free agent. It was pretty clear going into training camp that there was going to be a three-way battle between Diallo, Josh Jackson and Frank Jackson for the two wing positions with the second unit. Right now, Diallo is the odd man out. Emphasis on “right now.” Frank Jackson was also a restricted free agent over the off-season and it’s instructive that Diallo’s contract was reported at a little more than $10 million over two years and Jackson’s at a little more than $6 million over the same term. In a vacuum, the Pistons valued Diallo more than Jackson. But putting a team on the floor is also about fit, especially at the back end of the rotation. So that second unit needs Frank Jackson’s shooting and scoring more than it needs Diallo’s athleticism and defense right now. They get plenty of the latter from Josh Jackson. If either of the Jacksons were to miss time, Diallo would be first up to slide into their spot in the rotation. If Cade Cunningham or Saddiq Bey miss time, the ripple effect probably means Diallo is elevated to the rotation. Even if Jerami Grant or Trey Lyles were to miss time, Diallo is a prime candidate to be the beneficiary. And, of course, Diallo can do something to win playing time even if nobody is unavailable simply by winning the opportunity with practice performances. But it’s safe to say that nothing that’s happened over the last six weeks has fundamentally altered the organizational opinion of Diallo.

Yeah Buddy (@Meeeshigan): Josh Jackson is earning himself a long-term contract. Is there any money left to sign him long term before he becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year?

Langlois: It’s not a matter of money but of the collective bargaining agreement’s parameters on contract extensions. Jackson signed a two-year deal as an unrestricted free agent with the Pistons last fall. Contracts of less than three years are not eligible to be extended. So Jackson will become an unrestricted free agent next summer. No way around it. That doesn’t mean the Pistons can’t or won’t retain him, but there are a lot of bridges to cross between now and then.

@worldwidety28/IG: Can Cade Cunningham take ballhandling duties from Killian Hayes?

Langlois: I don’t know where the ultimate mix will wind up over the minutes that Cunningham and Hayes share the floor – and, so far, they’ve been together a lot more often than apart over Cunningham’s first four NBA games – but Dwane Casey has said he’d like to get more of Cunningham with the ball in his hands. Hayes was the primary ballhandler for the first few games but last week we saw Cunningham get a larger share of possessions, though Hayes missed Friday’s game with Brooklyn due to a thumb injury. “We’re getting to that,” Casey said before that game when asked about Cunningham playing more on the ball. “One thing you don’t want to do is get his usage rate up too high, too quick. It’s his third NBA game. Teams are going to blitz him some, pick him up some, so now you’ve got to get the balance of Killian bringing it down and Cory (Joseph) and getting that mixture.” Casey thought Cunningham wore down a little bit in the previous night’s game with Philadelphia, so his conditioning level – naturally affected by being out a month – is another factor in informing Casey when and how much to ramp up Cunningham’s responsibilities. But, yeah, he’s going to get more and more opportunities as the lead playmaker as the results warrant it. And Hayes likes playing off the ball, so the expectation is that it will benefit him, too.

Paul (Phoenix): The biggest surprise? How pathetic this offense is. The offensive scheming of this team seems to be 3-point shooting or you’re relegated to the bench. Saddiq Bey had his best game inside the arc – 16 rebounds, better than 50 percent shooting – and that was ditched the very next game. Cade comes in and shoots 70 percent of his shots from three? I don’t remember him being a top-two draft pick for his 3-point shooting. When a team ignores scoring in the paint and the mid-range for the sake of 3-point shooting (at 20 to 25 percent), that strikes me as a lottery-seeking team.

Langlois: No question the shooting percentage is troubling, but the percentage of shots the Pistons have taken from the 3-point arc – 40.6 percent – puts them almost exactly at the NBA league average of 40.2 percent. The stats also show the Pistons are getting more shots the NBA characterizes as “wide open” from the 3-point line than the average team. So you can lament the fact the ball’s not going in as often as you, Dwane Casey or anyone else associated with the Pistons would like, but the type and quality of shots are what their offense – and what the offenses of nearly every NBA team – is designed to produce.

Darrell (Detroit): Wouldn’t the team be better off starting Cory Joseph, Josh Jackson and Kelly Olynyk and brings its three 20-year-old players off the bench against players that are more their speed? The starting unit will presumably score more and playing lesser-talented players should help the young guys on both ends of the floor, which should provide an infusion of confidence that would enable them to grow into their starting job. I’ve never been a fan of starting players based on draft position rather than being based on actually earning the position. Being thrown into the fire can help some players while harming others. Nothing kills upside more than disabling injuries or disabling one’s confidence before it has a chance to grow.

Langlois: Dwane Casey made the decision to keep the recent No. 1 draft picks – Cade Cunningham from this year, Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey from last year – together as a unit and start them alongside Jerami Grant. I asked him about that decision earlier this week and, in part, here’s what he said: “It’s called a restore, a rebuild. It wouldn’t be a rebuild if we had veteran guards and veteran wings. Those are the guys we’re building with, the cornerstone right now. That’s what you go through.” You can read more about it here. Casey understands the challenge is greater for those young players by starting and going against other teams’ starters, but they’re confident enough in both the talent and makeup of those players that they won’t have their development stunted by it. He kept the door open to make adjustments to that plan down the road, but Cunningham just returned less than two weeks ago. They want to give it a real chance once Cunningham has a little more time to adjust and catch up on multiple levels from the time lost while he was out with an ankle injury.

The Conductor (@amirewastaken): If you were to build a realistic trade package for Jerami Grant, what would it be?

Langlois: My guess is something like Denver gave up to get Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline last season. Gordon and Grant have had fairly similar careers and are close to the same age. Gordon had one-plus seasons left on his deal at the trade deadline last March, the same as Grant will have on his deal at the trade deadline this Feburary. Orlando got a 2025 first-round pick, protected through the top five, plus 2020 first-rounder R.J. Hampton and a solid veteran guard, Gary Harris, in the deal at last season’s trade deadline. Something similar to that would be in the ballpark. Somebody like a Harris, with a salary to make a Grant trade work, plus the equivalent of a first-rounder plus Hampton. That could be two protected first-rounders or a first plus a young player with years of team control remaining and potential. All of that said, I’d still put the odds of Grant getting traded at any point this season very, very low. I’d still wager that the likelier outcome for Grant is signing a second contract with the Pistons than being traded before the first one is up.